اگر فردوس بروئے زمین است

ہمیں است وہمیں است و ہمیں است

Mughal Emperor Jahangir once said about Kashmir: "Agar Firdaws ba roy-i zamin ast, hamin ast-u hamin ast-u hamin ast.” (If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this). And boy, he was spot on. The place is a little piece of heaven a beauty, a treat for eyes and tranquility dose for senses.

Our plan was made rather suddenly and surprisingly, none of us had issues or excuses and before we knew it, we were in coasters for Azad Kashmir at Daewoo bus stand at Thokar Niaz Baig, Lahore.

We had our first stop in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir for breakfast and as usual night long travelling had made us tired and sleepy but were still ready for some selfies and photographs.

After the breakfast, we left for Keran and during this journey; we witnessed the beauty of Kashmir, the greenery and serenity of the place. River Neelum accompanied us during the whole journey with green alpine trees at its bank and green mountains.

On the way to Keran, we had our first stop at Dhani waterfall; a rather small but high waterfall, obviously with cold water and it felt refreshing in mildly hot weather.

After reaching Keran around 4pm and getting a hotel room, our group had some interestingly funny events (not seemed at that time), when one of our friends went into ‘Slow Motion Mode’ (caused because of sleep deprivation and lack of proper meal), that friend of ours did not sleep throughout the night and did not eat properly led to low sugar level and blood pressure hence ‘Slow Motion Mode’ meaning understanding, what someone is saying, one or two seconds late and responding in slow motion. After consultation with a doctor (who was with us on the trip), we left our room for River Neelum.

The place was beautiful, with green mountains surrounding and river flowing but the most striking element of that place was the boundary that separates the two sides of Kashmir.

The Indian side seemed greener and less populated as Azad Kashmir side has become commercialised due to tourism resulting in number of hotels on river bank. The bank is peaceful and flow of water and surroundings helps you relax and enjoy the scenery. After practicing my expertise in photography (Yep, self-praising), we came back to hotel to spend the night.

Next morning after getting up, we decided to go to upper Neelum which is a 3-kilometre trek from Keran. The place was quite, as usual green and peaceful and as we went up, the scenery of both sides of Kashmir became more open and beautiful, obviously. After completing two kilometres and making excuse of shoes and my slippers, we came down and started preparations for the next journey.

Our next stop was Dwariaa’n, from where jeep trek starts. The place is roughly 1-hour-drive away from Keran, and boy, the scenery was breathtaking to Dwariaa’n because as one travels, the mountains become more magnificent and beautiful.

After reaching Dawariaa’n we booked jeeps to go to base camp of Ratti Galli Lake, one can also trek from here to the base camp for 6-7 hours but as our schedule was of jeeps, so we hopped on and then started a bumpy, jumpy, ultra-shaky but exhilarating and scenic ride. The ride has the ability to shake you internally and externally because if nature has allowed, at the end of that jeep ride, one can have multiple internal organs as they been would have divided due to the jumps bumps. One of our friends summarised it by saying: ‘This ride is practical implication of Muntashir Khayalat (scattered thoughts). The ride is just beautiful as usual green accompanied with noisy and very fast flowing River Neelum which at place becomes so white that it becomes a ‘Liquid Milky Way.’

After passing though small glaciers and numerous waterfalls, we reached at the base camp and it is breathtakingly dead gorgeous surrounded by green, silent mountains and have lush green plateau with its own low-heighted water fall and stream. There were many groups and tourists at base camp but it was silent in its own way, it engulfs in its beauty like it has been waiting for you to come to praise its magnificence.

After resting there for almost an hour, we set out to meet Ratti Galli Lake, or, as the locals say, ‘Jewel of Neelum Valley.’ The trek is two-hour long and relevantly easy. The trek does get bit thinner at some points but it is straight unless, like us, one chooses wrong trek which is mainly used by horses because you can have a face to face interaction with a running horse. We had to jump (a bit exaggeration) to our right to prevent a collision with rather careless and without a person-to-guide horse.

After almost less than half trek, there was a small lake on left. The lake which has shaped due to water coming from Ratti Gali Lake is beautiful and blue. As we did not know the name of that lake and our friend Aisha saw it first among us, so she named it Aisha Lake (so, good news for All Aishas out there, you have a lake named after you).

After passing by the ‘Aisha Lake’ the last stretch for Ratti Gali Lake came. This portion would definitely make one tired but keeping our breaths in control with slow and steady walk, we climbed easily and at the end of that part, there was Ratti Gali Lake.

Simply breathtaking, a scene to behold, a place to stop, to stare and breathe it into you, the calm glacial waters of lake are engulfed with brown mountains around her. It’s like the palms of surrounding mountains are holding the lake, preserving her serenity, her beauty, her reverence, her silent waves and her aura. The scenery at lake is just like; a highly skilful painter has placed its masterpiece there to mesmerise the visitors.

As I said, the lake is surrounded by reddish brown mountains which look like, a wall, high and rocky, with chunks of glacial snow on it and portrait of ‘Queen’ painted on the wall at right side of lake. This is the throne of Ratti Gali, ‘The Mountain Throne’ and she sits on it with her full glory and royal authority and surrounding area is her kingdom where we entered.

My friend, however, called it ‘The Wall’ from ‘Games of Thrones’ and was convinced that it is much more original location than in the series.

Ratti Gali Lake, as per the local guide, got her name because she is surrounded by Red mountains and Ratta or Ratti means red in local and I think in Punjab language too. This water beauty is lying here as it is the rightful set for her; she claims the place and owns it. The clouds hovering low above her are like moving shades giving the way to sunlight when her-highness wants it.

The cold waters of Ratti Gali welcomed us warmly as our guests for as long as long we wanted but with respect without violating her resting silence and dignity. As she is impactful and strong, it seemed that she will definitely get angry, if you make unnecessary sounds.

While sitting on a stone, right at bank of her, you feel so small, so weak in that surroundings, it slowly hits you, the royalty of Ratti Gali and you wish to just sit there, silently, try to hear the whispers of her-highness, the stories of centuries she wants to share, the moments of travels she made while resting in these mountains, you just have to be respectful and silent and she will open her heart with you.

After spending some time in her company, obviously with her permission, we started our journey back with turning back to her after every few steps for one last look, for one last glimpse, for one last whisper. We left her when sun was saying her goodbye with its dull golden rays on her walls, enhancing her enchanting beauty and then we bid a final farewell to her, until next time.

On our way down, for numerous times, I turned back, looked at the mountains where last rays of sunlight were leaving a golden shade on them. As we walked down, the golden rays went up to and finally as we stepped in base camp, the sunlight had reached at tip of mountains, making them golden and taking permission from Ratti Gali Lake so she can rest under starry, breezy, silent and cold night.

That night at the base camp was chilly and windy just like her-highness sending us the last greetings to take back to our hometowns to recall her while working behind a boring working desk. She cares for you even when you are not near her.

The return jeep ride was same except at one point when due to our sleeping friend in front seat, the driver could not put jeep in reverse gear as it was stuck with our friend’s leg and as he put pressure on accelerator, the jeep lurched forward, the driver scowled at our friend and simply said, “Agr kisi or mor per hota to abhi hum sab nay hawa maen hona tha.” The rest of the journey remained un-eventful and smooth.

And in the end, the boyses at Directions (the group who took us to the trip) especially Zunair (whose name we can’t pronounce for some weird unknown reason), arranged the trip professionally and skillfully. Their dealing with customers is excellent and their arrangements let us enjoy the trip fully and in relax mod. So, Kudos to those him and his tour group and hopefully we meet again, but not yet, not yet (yup, fan of Gladiator).